On his first visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a South Asian icon to be looked up to and emulated. His rise from being a humble tea boy to be the Prime Minister of a gigantic country like India, was the stuff of dreams and a beacon of hope among the disadvantaged in the entire region.
His avowed South Asian regional orientation and his “Look East” declarations gave hope of a fresh deal for India’s smaller neighbors, including Sri Lanka. No wonder Modi got a breathtaking reception in Colombo and Jaffna with manifest and spontaneous popular participation on his first visit.
But there has been a sea change since then. Two years down the line, as Modi arrives here on May 11 for a two-day visit, Sri Lankans are wary about Modi and his government, wondering whether New Delhi’s recent brazen moves on Sri Lanka have a hidden agenda to interfere with and abridge Sri Lanka’s right to choose its friends, economic partners and defense allies.
Sri Lankans wonder if India plans to arrogate the island’s strategic national assets in the guise of “joint development” of such assets.
New Delhi’s seemingly high handed bid to thwart China’s inroads into Sri Lanka through a large number of agreements such as the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and the recent MoU on economic projects, has made Modi’s “Neighborhood First Policy“ suspect in the eyes of Sri Lankans.
Therefore, while the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will roll out the red carpet to Modi as a kind of pay back for New Delhi’s help in securing power, the population as a whole is expected to be withdrawn if not manifestly hostile, as opinion makers and ginger groups fire warning shots about an impending Indian take-over of the island’s economy.
To be sure, China’s moves to get a firm foothold in Sri Lanka since 2010 have also triggered resentment, but reactions to India’s counter moves have been infinitely more severe. Both the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils have grouses against India and the Modi regime.
The majority Sinhalese (70% of the population) are worried about the erosion of their country’s sovereignty as a result of the Indo-Lankan government proposal to sign an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). The signing of a wide ranging and comprehensive MoU on economic projects on April 25 this year, which has been presented to the Sri Lankan people as a fait accompli, has drawn flak.
The Sinhalese fear that the India-funded economic projects could be Trojan Horses for Indian infiltration and arrogation of the country’s economic resources.
As for the minority Tamils, they are disappointed that India under Modi, is more interested in economic development, trade and investment to further its own interests than in helping the Tamils secure post war economic, livelihood and political rights. The Tamils consider the latter to be India’s historical and moral responsibility flowing from a past in which India had shaped the issue to a great extent.
Modi’s India thinks that economic development and economic integration of Sri Lanka under its aegis, will create opportunities for the Tamils to advance, and help soothe ethnic tension created by the 30 year war. But the Tamils think that constitutionally guaranteed political rights and devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas will alone ensure ethnic reconciliation and integration, a line India had taken for 30 years but has abandoned now.
The Sinhalese (who are 70% of the population) are anxious about India’s intentions, and the Tamils (12 % of the population) are glum and indifferent, if not anxious.
The Muslims (8% of the population) view Modi with disdain as a Hindutva zealot who is persecuting Muslims in India, especially Kashmir, and fighting against Pakistan, an Islamic country they have a natural affinity for.
Though divided on many issues, especially rising Islamic fundamentalism in the island and the world, Sinhalese and Muslims look upon Pakistan as a true and consistent friend – a country which has stood by Sri Lanka during the Tamil Tiger terrorist era; supported it in international human rights forums; and refrained from interfering in its internal political affairs.
However, the one million strong Indian Origin Tamils many of whom live in the tea plantations in the Central Highlands, are a different kettle of fish.
The Indian Origin Tamils are happy that India is turning its attention away from the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and looking at them at long last. The hewers of wood and drawers of water of Sri Lanka are now feeling wanted by India. Modi will not only be inaugurating a 100-bed modern hospital to serve them but will also address them at a public meeting and go into a huddle with their leaders.
The Indian Tamils not only have economic problems but are educationally backward. They need land rights and adequate electoral representation under the proposed electoral reforms. They demand delimitation of electoral constituencies in such a way that more of them can get into elected bodies from the provincial to the national level.
The Indian Origin Tamil leaders are expected to take up these issues when they meet Modi. And in all likelihood, Modi will take them up with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when he meets them next.
But this is not to the liking of the Sinhalese majority. C.A.Chandraprema, political commentator in The Sunday Island has already dubbed the Indian Origin Tamils as “India’s fifth column” in Sri Lanka.
Commentators like Chandraprema and Dayan Jayatilaka have strongly objected to the MoU signed in New Delhi on April 25 which lists a number of projects in which India is to collaborate with Sri Lanka. Though these are “Joint Ventures” for the development of the energy, ports and other sectors in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese nationalists view them as arrogation of vital sectors by India. They fear that Sri Lanka’s strategic assets will be partially if not fully in India’s hands in due course.
India is to refurbish and use 85 giant World War II vintage oil tanks in Trincomalee, each with a capacity of 12,000 mt, as a Joint Venture with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. But this is seen by Sri Lankan nationalists as alienation of a national asset. The Sri Lankan parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had only recently called for the cancellation of the 2003 agreement by which a total of 99 giant oil tanks in Trincomalee were handed over to India for development and use.
In a sharp attack, Joint opposition stalwart Mahinda Rajapaksa said: “Trincomalee’s oil tanks, preserved as a national asset by successive governments since Independence are to be sold. The government is trying to sell Sri Lanka to India.”
The remark was aimed at touching a raw nerve in a nation where the public are wary of India playing Big Brother.
The April 25 MoU on economic projects talks of setting up power plants using LNG jointly with India; and developing the Trincomalee port and the Eastern Terminal in the Colombo port. Plans have been drawn up for establishing industrial estates jointly in several parts of Sri Lanka.
But India’s interest in the Eastern port of Trincomalee and building a highway to link Mannar in the North West with Trincomlee is the North East is seen as a way of establishing Indian presence in the Tamil-majority North and East which have traditional ethnic ties with Tamil Nadu state in India. The alleged plan to build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait in the North West, has been dubbed “traitorous” by Dayan Jayatilaka.
Sri Lankans also fear that along with Indian financial and technical aid will come Indian service personnel who will take away jobs from Sri Lankans. This is the reason why Sri Lankan trade unions and professional bodies are opposing the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) even though the proposed
agreement does not envisage personnel movement across borders except in the ship building and IT sectors.
Sri Lankan professionals have been asking the government to spell out a National Policy on foreign trade and investment agreements and demanding prior consultation on these. But till date, no national policy has been drawn up and consultations have only been perfunctory.
This, along the alleged bid to hand over 99 oil tanks to India, triggered a crippling nation-wide petroleum workers strike a day before Prime Minister Wickremesinghe went to India to finalize the MoU. which was signed on April 25. More recently, in May, there was a nation-wide one-day strike against ETCA.
Experienced Indian diplomats and senior Sri Lankan ministers are skeptical about the implementation of the April 25 MoU and the signing of ETCA. Former Ambassador M.Bhadrakumar says that signing of MoUs by India have meant nothing as hundreds of them are languishing unimplemented.
Champika Ranawaka, Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister of Megapolis (Urban Development), says that the Indian public and private sectors are very tardy in implementing projects in Sri Lanka. Existing projects are languishing and some have been cancelled, Ranawaka said.